Support, Supplies & Sex Work Allies: Talking S.H.O.P. with Laura Winters



Nicole: Why don’t you start off by introducing yourself and the project?

Laura Winters: Hi, I’m Laura Winters, and I’m the coordinator of SHOP; we actually just re-branded as SHOP, or the Safe Harbour Outreach Project. We started back in October of 2013, and this has been an issue in the province for a long time, and there’s been no attention paid to it. There was a private donor that just wanted to give some money to an organization to start something, anything, for women working in the sex industry; so she donated to the St. John’s Women Center, and the women’s center hired me to design and implement this program.

So it’s a harm-reduction based outreach program – we serve women in all locations of the sex industry; it’s not specifically that you have to be trying to exit to connect with us. We serve women who are working in the sex trade, who are doing survival sex, and who are exiting. You don’t have to specifically be doing a particular type of sex work, it’s for everybody, and no matter what their situation is we’re just here for them. We just try to meet their needs the best way we can in a totally non-judgmental way.

Harm reduction is usually talked about in the areas of drug use and addiction, and it’s just the thought that people are going to engage in behaviours which are somewhat harmful – and so harm reduction is about not necessarily stopping the behaviour, but reducing the harm and risk associated with it.

Basically a lot of what we do is try and help people do what they do safely. There are reasons why they’re doing it and we can’t address a lot of those root causes; such as economics and the structures of inequalities that exist which push people into this. So the best thing that we can do is to help these women stay safe, and to support them and let them know that there’s at least some support in the city. They can come and not be judged and just be themselves; we see them as people and not just sex workers. 

Every other province has something, a lot of them have really well established services. In some provinces, sex workers are trying to unionize, so there are provinces that are a lot further ahead in supporting people and their rights than we are.

Nicole: Who else is involved with this program?

Laura: At SHOP right now, it’s just me, I’m part time right now doing 20 hours a week – it’s a funding issue. We got the initial funding and we were really hoping that the government would respond with money from the Violence Prevention Initiative or from the Women’s Policy Office but they haven’t unfortunately. So right now we are struggling to find more funding to continue to sustain the work we’re doing. It would be fabulous to have a full-time employee – it would be even more fabulous to hire a sex worker themselves to help do this work. It is our belief that sex workers are the experts, and other models across Canada show that the best forms of support come from your peers; hiring somebody that has been engaged in the industry is a really good thing. So that’s eventually where we’d like to go with it, but there would have to be more funding involved to get it there.  

We’re trying to do a lot right now with very few hours and only one staff member, but we do have the support of the St. John’s Women’s Center and their staff; for instance, their social worker gives us a certain number of hours a month. We have all the supports that are available at the Women’s center backing us up, the executive director is hugely supportive, so all of the infrastructure that already exists there helps support our program. We also work very closely with other community organizations in supporting people; it takes a whole network of services to support someone, so networking amongst community organizations is essential.

Nicole: So tell us a little bit more about the volunteer crisis line and some of the other services that the SHOP program offers.

Laura: We offer a number of things to women working in the industry. Our tag line is “Support, Supplies, and Sex Work Allies,” so for example we do a lot of one on one support, and we do a lot of referrals to other agencies, and basically we just try to get people’s needs met however we can. For supplies, we hand out harm reduction items like condoms, lube, dental dams, female condoms, and we also carry SWAP (Safe Work Access Program) supplies: clean needles and pipes for people that are using drugs.

   We also do a lot of advocacy work, like the WOW line (Warn Other Workers Program) where we have partnered with the Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Center – by partnering with them we are trying to say to the women in the industry that what happens to you in the industry, when you are experiencing assault, that IS sexual assault. We see it as such because the response that they get sometimes from other agencies, they’re not responding to it in that manner. People believe that “Oh well if a woman’s going to do that work, she’s putting herself out there, and she deserves what she gets” but that’s not the case. So it’s a great partnership in that we’re legitimizing what happens to these women as a form of assault. Women can call the WOW crisis line and avail of support from a trained volunteer, and that support can be emotional support, or the volunteers can actually go to the hospital with them and support them through the process of engaging with the sexual assault nurse examiners program. Sex workers can also leave information on the line about their assault; it’s totally anonymous and confidential, and we take that information and create red alert sheets every month with a list of clients that women should watch out for. It’s empowering for women in that they are having their experiences recognized as what they are – assault, they’re getting the one-on-one support, and just knowing that other women are working to keep them safe. We’re trying to build a community of peer support. Anyone who wants to volunteer should connect with the Sexual Assault and Crisis Prevention Center. They do calls for volunteers; check their website to see when the next call is. As we grow, there will become more opportunities for volunteering, if anyone is interested in helping with this kind of work.

We’ve had people volunteer in the past at the beginning of the program, like a really fabulous group of Girl Guides called the Trifoil Guild, which is a group of adult Girl Guides. They actually sewed bags for us to give out harm reduction items in, they made us 50 bags and we filled them with condoms, lube, and all kinds of harm reduction items and personal care items for the women. We also included lots of information in the bags for the women, and everybody that connects with the program gets one of these bags. It’s a really nice thing to be able to say that hey, this group of women cared enough to sew these, and here you go.

Nicole: That’s a really interesting group of people to get support from for this cause!

Laura: Yeah! Interestingly enough we haven’t received any funding from government, but we did just receive a grant from The Redemptorist Centre for Growth, so we’re getting funding from unusual places where you might not necessarily think of. 100 Women That Care also just donated to us so we’re really appreciative of that. That’s another thing too, to be able to say to the women that, you know, there’s a hundred women in this city that care enough to donate to this program. It’s all working together to make people feel more valued, and like members of society.

Nicole: So, the cooperation from the workers has been really good, have you been getting a lot of calls?

Laura: We’ve connected with about 75 people since the program has started a year ago, and what we’re calling a connection is just meeting somebody once. Of those (75 people) about half the people have reconnected and come back for supplies, and things like that. There are probably about twenty women that we’re working with on an individual basis regularly that we support more intensively. We definitely want to grow those numbers. So we’re hoping with the launch of this campaign now that the numbers will increase and the women have been really receptive because we’re here for them. Initially when we started the program we began with the premise of ‘what do you need and how can we help?’, so we weren’t trying to design something and shove it down peoples throats. We really wanted input from women themselves, because they’re the experts on their own lives, and we really strongly believe that. So, we want as much input from them as possible in developing this program. We’ve really worked with women to find out what they want and how they want it delivered.

Nicole: How have you found the response from the government and the police force?

Laura: The response from Government just kind of hasn’t been there, and I think it’s part of the culture here in Newfoundland. People just tend to think that this just isn’t happening, or they do know about it and are just turning a blind eye. Really, a huge piece we want to do is try and reduce the amount of stigma experienced by women engaging in these sex work activities. That’s the number one thing women say is problematic in their life, even more so than any sexual or physical assault that might happen, more so than any other thing that’s challenging for them in their lives – it’s the stigma. Not being able to participate as a full citizen in your community and neighborhood, and the shame associated not being able to go access medical services, or a lot of women will not go to Police when they’re assaulted. They don’t feel like you or I who could walk into the Police station. So, we really hope that the advocacy and education work will be able to open some eyes and let people know what’s going on here. These women, deserve respect and deserve the same treatment that the rest of us get. It’s about human rights at that point. And the response from Police: we’ve been working with them to try to figure out how we can best serve people. So, we do have a community group established and there’s a number of community organizations as well as the RNC involved, where we meet quarterly and discuss what’s going on in terms of how can we best meet the needs of people. There’s definitely some great Police Officers out there, and people with really good intentions. Police officers are human too, and some people have their own moral judgements, and unfortunately those do sometimes makes it in to their work, so we have had women who have tried to report a sexual assault related to the sex industry, and it has been heavily judged, or they did not have a good experience. What I think we’re trying to do now is to amend that and try to figure out how we can better serve this population and create better relationships with these organizations.

Nicole: When you get a call, do you also take that information to the Police to warn them?

Laura: No – and that’s something that the Warn Other Workers [hotline] is totally anonymous, confidential and is not in any way connected to the police. The reason is because people have had those bad experiences. We would certainly support and we have supported women in their decision to make a police statement. We’ve created a relationship where I’m allowed to go into the interview room with women and support them in that process, and I find that’s helpful. People tend to be treated a little bit better when there is someone there advocating for them, so that’s one thing we’ve done. But we certainly, certainly do not pass any information along to police that our participants would give to us. We just support them in their decisions to approach police.

Nicole: In terms of assault prevention, what are you workings towards, and have you found more people are interested in what you’re offering?

Laura: Basically that stuff is always on our radar. We have just launched through social media, our new campaign with the WOW line, so that’s what we’re focusing on right now. But right now our partner, the Sexual Assault Prevention Center is certainly hosting a number of things, and on December 17 is the International day to end violence against sex workers, so we’ll definitely be doing something around then to help bring attention to the issue in the province.

Nicole: Was there any specific event that sparked the creation of this hotline?

Laura: The Hot Line itself was something that a number of women told us they wanted to see. So, we really partnered with working women themselves to see what they wanted, and what they needed. Some women travel back and forth between different provinces, so we had a number of women saying to us: “Look, this service is available to us in other provinces, it’s very helpful, why isn’t it happening here?” So we just made it happen. It wasn’t one specific event, but there has been a number of assaults since where we’ve supported women through their experiences. It’s an ongoing thing, unfortunately. It’s a side effect of the industry being so taboo and undercover as it is. It’s a side effect of our ineffective laws in Canada. The industry isn’t inherently violent and harmful, but there IS a number of factors that make it that way. Unfortunately there are things that could be changed, and hopefully they will.

Nicole: How have the recent assaults affected the SHOP program and the WOW hotline?

Laura: The recent assaults received quite a lot of media attention and I think were an eye opener for some people in terms of what happens here in NL; since issuing the red alert, things have been business as usual here at SHOP. The unfortunate reality is, sexual violence is commonplace in our province, and we receive reports regularly. In this instance, we issued a red alert because there were numerous incidents within a short period of time, and the incidents were so severe in terms of the violence and number of people involved; we thought it was imperative to warn sex workers in any ways possible, and the victims agreed – we only released as much info as the victims were comfortable with.

I think it’s important for people to recognize that the current nature of the sex trade, the underground nature of it, the lack of supports in this province, the harmfulness and unconstitutionality of our federal laws, it all makes for a situation where sexual violence can and does happen and can and does go unreported. What our public needs to know is that more than anything, victims must be heard and believed, and we must be mindful of the many ways our systems can victim blame, re-victimize and re-traumatize in these situations. The constant public outcry about why victims in these cases did not go to police is actually a form of victim blaming. Survivors deserve to heal from such a trauma in whatever way works for them; that may or may not involve the police and no one should be judged for their decision. It was a brave and courageous thing to do to make the report to us… expecting anything further is unfair and disrespectful. 

Nicole: How has the recent anonymous donation to the SHOP program affected the support it provides to sex workers?

Laura: The recent donation is moving us towards our goal of sustainability for this program. The donation came anonymously, but came with the caveat that we have our government match those funds, which we are currently advocating for. The person who gave the donation actually stated that they believed our government should be funding supportive programs of this nature, and that they hoped by making this contribution, they would be bringing some accountability for the government to contribute as well. We have recently submitted funding proposals to our provincial government, directly to the premier’s office, actually, for the commitment to three years of funding for this program, so that we can go full time, increase the number of women we support, and also hire some experiential people. To be honest, we can’t keep up with the demand part-time, and we hope that our government decides to support us and our work. We know that the women we serve deserve this and more.   

(Editor’s note: Since this interview, the donation has been matched by the NL Provincial Government)

Nicole: Is there anything you’d like to add or any information you want to get out?

Laura: Well, you were asking about public response, and generally in terms of public response we find that some people just don’t think it happens here in Newfoundland, or if they do know about it they’re usually judgmental of the people involved and we always try to say – if you have moral reservations about the sex industry itself, if you have morale reservations about the transactions that go on – that’s fine. You can have your own beliefs about that stuff. But what’s not fine is applying that to the individuals involved. So you can think what you want about the sex industry, but you cannot think what you want about sex workers. They deserve respect, dignity and health, safety and human rights like the rest of us. Everybody does.

So, that’s what we’re hoping to get at. We do a lot of advocacy and education and I think our public will soon start to open it’s eyes and see that these women really do deserve respect, and respect makes all the difference for somebody. A lot of women feel like because they’re involved in these activities that they’re not part of society, they’ve crossed some line that exists and that they’re not like everybody else. So it’s a challenge to our service to learn how to relay to women that we truly value you – you do have a value and you’re not across some line in our society, you’re apart of our society and really valuable part of it. Sex workers have a lot of knowledge and a lot to offer. I’ve learned a lot from the women I work with, and I think if other people would open their eyes and be open to people they would see that these are beautiful and complex human beings who get such a bad wrap, and it’s totally unfair.

Learn more about the services and programs taking place in NL at the NLSACPC and Safe Harbour Outreach Project pages. Connect on twitter @sexworkoutreach

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